I was looking forward to this recital for some time. I first met Lawrence Zazzo more than a decade ago when he stole the show in a contemporary opera at the Battersea Arts Centre. The following year I was captivated by his performance as Mascha in the Lyon production of Peter Eötvös’ Three Sisters which features no less than three counter-tenors and a male soprano in a Noh play version of the Russian classic. It was his acting which really touched me then. Despite his background of singing in the choirs of both Clare and Kings College Cambridge as a postgraduate, Lawrence Zazzo offers so much more than a typical male alto from a cathedral choir.
What a pleasure it was to see him in last year’s ENO production of Radamisto: a convincingly heroic counter-tenor. Since then he has reprised the title role in Giulio Cesare at the Paris Opera, with which he previously made his Met debut, and has also sung the role in Brussels, Seville and Bilbao. If you are going to be typecast, it may as well be as Rome’s first emperor or a Persian warrior king in the noble world of opera seria.
It would be invidious to try and put the top four counter-tenors in the world into any kind of pecking order. Just as used to be the case with the three tenors, at this level one can only express a preference. There is an element of ‘you are only as good as your last performance’ to any assessment, of course. Then there’s the fact that the counter-tenor voice tends to be a bit limited in its scope, so we can’t judge a counter-tenor by his ability to sing Verdi or Wagner. The repertoire available to a counter-tenor whose voice and personality enable him to climb out of the ‘English cathedral tradition’ is either in baroque or early classical opera and oratorio or, in the case of this top handful of counter-tenors, contemporary roles created specially for them. And singing new music on the stage is no mean feat, not just because of its complexity, but because its seems so rare to find a counter-tenor voice which can project in an opera house above the orchestral forces used by Sir Harrison Birtwistle or Emmanuel Nunes, as for example British counter-tenor, Andrew Watts has done in recent memory.
Zazzo is conductor René Jacobs’ favourite: he recently described him as ‘the most versatile operatic counter-tenor of his generation.’ But René Jacobs is a specialist in baroque and classical opera, so you probably wouldn’t find him in an audience for Neuwirth or Unsuk Chin. I haven’t heard Zazzo singing contemporary opera for a decade and Watts is all too rarely heard in opera seria in the UK, so I can’t make a direct comparison. Perhaps because his most recent London appearance was in Handel, Zazzo chose in this recital to sing music at the more modern end of the spectrum. However, in order to create an intriguing and varied programme of music by American composers, asserting if you will his American-ness (despite the fact that, the last I heard, he lives in Yorkshire with his Belfast-born wife, Giselle Allen,) he included songs which were premiered by Leontyne Price (soprano) and Gérard Souzay (baritone.)
He began with a selection of four songs by Charles Ives. Ives, despite founding one of the most prominent insurance businesses in the USA, found time to write in excess of 200 songs between 1888 and 1921. Perhaps because Ives was very much connected to real life, married with an adopted daughter and spending his days in an insurance office, these songs are (according to Richard Stokes’ illuminating notes in the programme) almost a journal of his daily life – memories and reflections on American life at the turn of the nineteenth century. Zazzo chose to wear a long jacket without lapels and somehow this helped set the scene into which he was to lead the audience: we were transported into the ambience of the New England of Ives and of Henry James. Memories (1897) is a famous comic song, divided into two sections. The first section, entitled “Very pleasant” describes a young boy’s anticipation at the opera just before the curtain goes up. The second, “Rather sad” describes a shuffling old relative humming. Zazzo conveyed the contrasting mood of these two sections extremely ably, but I was disappointed, sitting where I was at the very back of the hall under the overhang of the balcony, to find I couldn’t hear his words clearly. I hate resorting to burying my nose in the programme as a singer performs, especially as 60% of what appeals to me about this particular counter-tenor is the quality of his acting. Songs my mother taught me is a setting of the Czech poem by Adolf Heyduk which Dvorak had set to music just five years earlier. The sustained melody of this allowed more of the dark beauty of Zazzo’s voice to come through the texture, but I still found the words a little distorted. My favourite from this sequence of Ives songs was Walking with words by Ives himself, describing rural life in New England. Here, in a 1902 composition, we began to hear the extraordinary harmonies I associate with Ives, as well as graphic depictions in both words and piano accompaniment (Simon Lepper) of church bells, a funeral and a dance. The Housatonic at Stockbridge is familiar from the orchestral suite, Three places in New England from which it is derived. Here it was as if the counter-tenor were a painter, describing a landscape painting on a broad canvas.
We then moved to a collection of songs by Samuel Barber. Hermit Songs were premiered in 1953 by Leontyne Price with the composer at the piano. In the preface to the songs, Barber wrote,
‘settings of anonymous Irish texts of the eighth to thirteenth centuries written by monks and scholars, often on the margins of manuscripts they were copying or illuminating – perhaps not always meant to be seen by their Father Superiors. They are small and speak in straightforward, droll and often surprisingly modern terms of the simple life these men led, close to nature, to animals and to God.’
Barber gives these settings a medieval flavour by using fragments of a whole tone scale and open fourths and fifths. In the second song, ‘Church bell at night’, I was struck by the amount of control Zazzo had over his instrument, his ability to float notes, to negotiate extreme intervals smoothly, always perfectly on pitch. In ‘St Ita’s Vision’ (which felt a little odd being sung by a man as its subject is breast-feeding the infant Jesus,) we were treated for a moment to a peek at Zazzo’s Farinelli tessitura - and very beautiful it was too. In terms of opera seria, he normally sings at the pitch of an alto castrato such as Senesino. It’s a very rare man who can sing with any kind of technical competence at soprano pitch. In ‘The Crucifixion’ we heard the pain of a mother’s grief which reminded me of the telling moment in the film, The Passion of the Christ where Mary realizes, as her son is bowed and bleeding, carrying the cross, that he is not a child any more, so she is powerless to make the horror and terror go away with a kiss and a mother’s hug. Here we really heard the captivating beauty of Zazzo’s voice, matching the poignancy of the emotion. Then we had the drama of a shipwreck in ‘Sea-snatch’ followed by a brief two-line medieval ditty on the subject of ‘Promiscuity.’ By far my favourite of this group was ‘The monk and his cat’ which depicts noble Pangur, the splendid white mouser, who is as silent and diligent in his work as his master. ‘The praises of God’ gave us a brief almost-Handelian melisma which clearly demonstrated the agility of Zazzo’s voice. The group ended with ‘The desire for hermitage,’ sung in part sotto voce, in which we heard a focused yet luminous sound.
After the interval we moved to works by two living American composers. Ned Rorem’s “War Scenes” are 1969 settings of Walt Whitman’s diary of the Civil War which was first published in 1882. These were premiered by Gérard Souzay and are dedicated to the fallen of the Vietnam War. I had read the words before the cycle started, but when Zazzo came out on stage, it was as if he were transformed. Miraculously I could hear every word. This was the Larry Zazzo whose voice I knew from the Theater an der Wien and the Coliseum. Suddenly I felt as if he were singing to me personally in my seat in the back row. He projected every word of ‘Night battle,’ his voice seemed to have acquired twice the breadth of tone colour, the drama in the words was electrifying, his diction superb. This was the singer I had come to hear. Perhaps he had been initially nervous, or maybe he took a little while to get his bearings in the Wigmore Hall’s acoustic. ‘An incident’ which describes a soldier who survives half his head being shot away for three agonising days was particularly telling. Ned Rorem has written no less than seven operas as well as over sixty different compositions for voice. These songs were like short dramatic operatic scenes and made me wish a British opera company would consider programming one of his operas.
Finally we were treated to the world premiere of Drink well and sing by Andrew Gerle, in the presence of the composer. After the darkness of the Whitman, we needed some light relief. Mr Gerle began his career as a concert pianist but has more recently won awards as a writer of musical theatre. He chose to set fragments of the poems of Anacreon of Teos because, as he expressed when he introduced the group of songs from the stage, “They are all about gender-bending which I thought was appropriate for a counter-tenor.” We were taken on a whistle-stop tour through a world which is familiar if you have read the Satires of Martial or Juvenal or wandered through the streets of Herculaneum (though of course this was Greece of the 6th century BC, not Rome in the 1st century AD.) We heard about Artemon the pimp who deals in rent boys, of the author’s fantasies about young men and women, a couple of ‘in’ jokes about the illiterate and the half-assed mule and finally a contemplation on the classical theme of ‘spargite rosas’ – party today because you may not have a tomorrow. I think there was at least one good show tune amongst these and Zazzo had a lot of fun with the jokes. I think my gripe would be that, after the power and poignancy of the Rorem, I wanted something more riotous to finish. All in all this was an interesting and varied programme which I enjoyed. I wish Mr Zazzo had invested as much of himself in the rest of the programme as he did in the Rorem, but perhaps my expectations were too high.